Omagh bombing investigations leave trail of questions still unanswered

Published date14 August 2021
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
There are tables and chairs scattered at random, and a circular table behind which sits Michael Gallagher, the group's public face and stalwart campaigner for truth and justice. His 21-year-old son Aidan was among the 29 people murdered when, 23 years ago tomorrow, republican terrorists detonated a car bomb they had left on the Tyrone town's busy Market Street.

Two hundred and 32 people were injured, many of them suffering life-changing wounds, such as blindness or loss of limbs. The 29 who died included a woman (16 of the 29 were female) pregnant with twins.

Despite numerous investigations – by police in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, by the Nally Group, set up by the Irish government, by non-governmental organisations such as Rights Watch (UK) and by journalists – there has not been a single successful prosecution, in any jurisdiction, of anyone responsible for the atrocity.

Because of this, a Belfast high court judge, Mr Justice Mark Horner, last month urged the authorities North and South to hold separate but simultaneous investigations, under the European Convention on Human Rights, saying that a significant amount of evidence, some public, some still held in secret, suggesting there had been a "real prospect of preventing" the bombing.

It is perhaps instructive that his full judgment remains sealed. It is being scrutinised by the British security services, who may yet insist on certain information being blacked out prior to publication.

"Surely the worst atrocity [of the Troubles] is worth investigating," says Michael Gallagher, who took the judicial review case to Mr Justice Horner.

A similar sentiment is expressed by a former senior detective, with both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who is intimately familiar with the Omagh case. He is one of two former officers who spoke to The Irish Times on condition their names were not published.

"Why has no one been prosecuted?," he asks. "I find that incomprehensible. Two democratic states have failed to find and convict any of the bombers."

"An expert examination of all the intelligence in the two jurisdictions might be helpful to all concerned," said the second former officer who warned, nonetheless, about revisiting events with the benefit of hindsight. "If things were missed, you interpret things as you see them at the time and as best you can."

Despite there being no successful prosecution, there is an awful lot of information about the atrocity and those allegedly involved.

Splinter group

On August 1st 1998, the so-called Real IRA (RIRA), set off a car bomb in Banbridge, Co Down.

The RIRA is a splinter group of seasoned terrorists who rejected the Provisional IRA ceasefire, declared in July 1997, and its political wing, Sinn Féin's, acceptance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, reached a year later.

The 500lb Banbridge bomb wounded 33 members of the public and two police officers but no one was killed, although the centre of Banbridge was wrecked.

Several months earlier, the same group planted a 600lb bomb in Lisburn which was defused by the British army on April 30th, and in February 1998 another 500lb car bomb was detonated outside the police station in nearby Moira, Co Down, blowing it to smithereens and injuring 11 people.

Mobile phones were linked to those and other bombings by GCHQ, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, a Cheltenham-based surveillance operation with a global reach, part of the UK's secret services, along with MI6 and MI5.

One of the phones connected to the bombings had a number containing the digits 585. On the morning of the Omagh bombing, August 15th 1998, the 585 phone, as Michael Gallagher puts it, "came alive again".

On August 12th, three days before the bombing, a southern-registered red Vauxhall Cavalier car was stolen in...

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